Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Happy Birthday Norman Blake

Today is Norman Blake's birthday, which is not hard for me to remember since it's also my son's. In any case, I thought I'd seize the occasion to pay homage to this incredible musician and relate some of my personal experiences.

Much like my experience with hearing Doc for the first time, I vividly remember my first brush with Norman's music. I was nineteen and walked into a friend's living room to find the album Whiskey Before Breakfast playing on his high end stereo. Seems like the cut was Arkansas Traveler, and hearing it was like crack cocaine to me. One dose and I was hooked.
The simplicity of the production merely enhanced the complexity of Norman's style. All of the cuts are either solo Norman or accompanied by one rhythm guitar (presumably Norman dubbed). This picking was just clean and powerful. And 100% authentic.
In no time I had my own copy of "Whiskey" and Fields of November as well. And, as with Doc, I've spent the thirty years since trying to figure out and emulate his style. A hopeless task, I'll admit.
Over the years I've had the opportunity to see Norman perform, and I've never been disappointed. But, be warned, if you're looking for acoustic fireworks these days you won't find it at one of his concerts. He's left behind the slick picking days to concentrate on style. "We're not here to burn it up," he told the audience at The Market Street Performance Hall in Chattanooga back in the 90s when I saw him there.
As a solo artist, Norman has always been one of the most traditional and authentic of players. The very selection of his songs prove that. Many of the tunes Norman fans now know as old, familiar friends would most likely have been lost to history had he not resurrected them on vinyl. And as he's matured he seems to have ventured to become ever more authentically old time. Listen to cuts from his most recent albums and it's easy to imagine them being played in some parlor in 1890. Even his own compositions come off sounding like tunes from a bygone age. Norman is the real thing.

Norman at the National Folk Festival, Chattanooga

He and his wife Nancy, who is his musical partner as well, live just over Lookout Mountain from us in poetically named Rising Fawn, Georgia. They were performing at the Dalhlonega Bluegrass festival back in the early nineties when I approached their RV. I was there to ask Norman if he could show me how he played Wroxall, a mando tune from The Norman and Nancy Blake Compact Disc (arty title, eh?), but that was just a pretext for talking to him. Well, he had no idea what song I was talking about when I asked and kept asking if I'd said "Rocksalt." His expression suggested that I'd asked him something as obscure as his junior high locker combination. I guess with a musician this prolific forgetting one tune out of hundreds, even when he wrote it, is pretty understandable.  Enter Nancy. She was in the RV, heard the exchange and suddenly emerged with her old, white faced Gibson mandolin to show me the tune. (I had it all wrong, by the way) That was my one and only personal exchange with Norman. I have talked to Nancy a few times, though.

In my humble opinion, American music has greatly benefited from Norman's rich contribution. Let's hope there's a lot more to look forward to.

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